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Dumb Things to Say To Cancer Patients

P.T. Barnum had a cynical take on the degree of stupidity manifested by average Americans (“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”) –but when it comes to what they say to those suffering from cancer, he wasn’t far off the mark.

I’ve been coachaing cancer patients  for over 25 years, and have had time to hear what sent them ’round the bend, and to put together a small collection of some sayings my clients never want to hear again. Feel free to add on–I’m sure I’m forgetting some.

Unhelpful Things to Say To a Person With A Cancer Diagnosis 

  • It’s all going to work out just fine, you’ll see.
  • Jeesh–is that one of the bad kinds of cancer? [This was one patient’s personal favorite. She loved to respond, “The worst. The absolute worst.”]
  • Oh–you have the good kind of cancer.
  • Oh, no. My friend’s father had that treatment and they think it’s the treatment that killed him, not the cancer.
  • Look at all the people who have survived cancer. Hey–look at Lance Armstrong alone. [I have a handful of patients who are almost ready to murder dear Lance for his recovery and comeback. It has made their lives miserable.]
  • Oh, G-d. My mother died of that. [“You will never go broke. . .”]
  • You are so brave–I could never do what you’re doing.
  • I know exactly how you feel. [Doesn’t even bear commenting on. It’s too awful.]
  • Don’t worry. Stress makes it worse. Just try to relax. [How helpful. Why didn’t I think of that?]
  • My Uncle Joe’s made it 3 years. He’s a real fighter. [As opposed to me, thought my client–I’m a real surrenderer.]
  • Man, life is so unfair.
  • It’s all about attitude–if you just stay positive. . . [then I won’t think of why I want to kill you.]
  • God only tests people He loves.
  • The treatments are horrible, but at least you’ll take off that weight we’ve both been fighting. [This one was priceless–I’ve kept it in mind for years. Ironically, that client is still alive and well and in remission, years later–heavier than ever.]
  • You look so good! I’d never be able to tell you had cancer.
  • Wow! You lost weight!
  • Oh, how horrible! How will Jeff survive without you? [Seriously??]

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The “You Really Need To” subset (a new class of annoying):

  • You really need to see Dr. X . . .
  • You really need to try a macrobiotic diet. . .
  • You really need to try Healing Touch. . .
  • You really need to find a support group. . .
  • You really need a second opinion. . .
  • You really need a workup at the Mayo Clinic. . .
  • You really need to read this book about. . .

For real–these are the things people see fit to say–when faced with someone with a cancer diagnosis.

For real–you will never go broke underestimating the intelligence of some people–when they are faced with someone with a cancer diagnosis. A point for P.T. Barnum’s side.

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15 Responses to Dumb Things to Say To Cancer Patients

  1. carlarenee45 February 21, 2012 at 9:31 am #

    But my question is, what DO you say to someone with a fatal illness?

    • Candida Abrahamson PhD February 21, 2012 at 10:25 am #

      You know, that’s an excellent question, and one I’d love feedback about. I find patients were more touched by hearing things like, “I’m here for the duration. Whatever you need, call on me, and I’ll be there”–when people truly meant it. Also when someone offered to take over some part of care or daily living–like one patient who had a friend take over all her carpools, and one who took over grocery shopping–that statement, “OK. What would help you the most? I’m going to take care of that–it’s off your head for now,” can really ease people’s minds. Maybe it’s worth a post on what DOES help to say–you make a fine point.

    • ruo twocone February 21, 2012 at 1:12 pm #

      my wife has stage IV colon cancer. things she’s loved hearing/seeing from others:
      “the way you are handling everything, you are such an inspiration to me”
      “that’s over there. she’s our little warrior princess” (overheard at the hospital from the next room over)
      when people just bring stuff over. i’m a terrible cook (other than mac n cheese!), and my wife can’t get out of bed for a few days while she’s on chemo. it’s been amazing having people just show up with food for us and our daughter. in the 6 months since her diagnosis we’ve received over 50 meals from friends and family. a lot of people ask what they can do, but we don’t always know how to ask. so don’t ask, just do something – make a meal or bring over a little gift basket. that has been what means the most.

      • Candida Abrahamson PhD February 21, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

        Thank you for this extremely helpful comment. Your vignette about your warrior princess is touching, and your point is so well-taken–we need to just DO something. You sound like you’re an appreciative person, as well, which I hope makes your tough spot somewhat easier. May you and your wife be blessed with good health for many years to come.

  2. Robyn February 21, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

    Here’s a question to follow this…what are some GOOD or comforting things to say to someone that just tells you they have cancer?? Or any illness for that matter. Though the above is really horrible ignorant stuff, what do you say when someone tells you they have this horrible illness? Saying nothing makes you feel cold, like you don’t care. And you want to show you care. You want to reach out and comfort people somehow. At least, I know I do. Most people aren’t too comfortable with a total stranger hugging them either, holding them so tight cause they just wish they could squeeze the bad stuff right out of them.

    • Candida Abrahamson PhD February 21, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

      It’s a great question, and I’ve actually gotten it from several people in response to this post. Enough times, in fact, that I’m working on a post that will be what IS a good thing to say and/or do for someone who has just told you they have cancer. Check back and hopefully I’ll have some ideas of how we can all do this a bit better.

  3. Violet February 25, 2012 at 11:09 am #

    I don’t know that I heard any of these gems, except for the “staying positive” one. Here are a couple of good ones I did hear: “Wow, you haven’t lost much weight. Here, I thought you’d be model-thin. You look pretty much the same.” As if cancer was a great new diet plan. My personal favorite though, was this: “Oh… They gave you morphine? They really only give you that when you’re right at the end.”

    Most people are much kinder, and if they don’t know what to say, I tell them that it’s all right, it’s hard to know what to say.

    • Candida Abrahamson PhD February 25, 2012 at 11:12 am #

      These are DREADFUL, Violet!!! I’d love to append them on to the original post–in your name, of course–if you feel comfortable with that. How awful!

  4. Bonnie May 24, 2012 at 11:45 pm #

    Here’s my all time favorite comment since I was diagnosed with Indolent Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. * As a co-worker walked towards me, arms outstretched*………”I just have to give you a hug…..I had a friend die of lymphoma this weekend.” Thanks, I think?

    • candidaabrahamson May 25, 2012 at 10:51 am #

      Oh, Bonnie, tha’t’s just AWFUL. I’d have to say, if I was rating, that’d make it into the top 10, don’t you think? The sad part is that people MEAN so well–and actually perform so badly! Wishing you the best–in health, and in personal interactions, Candida

  5. Beth Gainer June 1, 2012 at 10:46 am #

    Wow! Thank you for this wonderful posting about the insensitive remarks people say to cancer patients. I’ve heard a number of these. You really hit the nail on the head with this posting. And thanks for commenting on my list of idiotic remarks people say. I appreciated it.

    • candidaabrahamson June 1, 2012 at 10:52 am #

      Experience is a cruel teacher–but there is comfort in sharing with each other.

  6. Keith November 5, 2012 at 6:19 am #

    Well it may be just as unfair to expect people to know the right thing to say as it is to get cancer itself. I appreciate the suggestions for good things to say above. To be very cynical, ultimately it does not matter that much. I think that it takes some courage to actually show up at someone’s bedside. I know it has for me in the past. Although I don’t know, perhaps there is some solace in just having someone there, even if they don’t say the right things. Perhaps the thing to remember is that dying is a process, and like all phases of life we decide for ourselves what we wish to take from it.

  7. Brenda December 11, 2015 at 4:15 pm #

    I was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer on Dec.2,2015. I must say I have heard a lot of stupid things but this takes the cake and it was said to my husband. My husband had 2dentist appointments. On the first visit he only told the Dentist. When he returned the next day the receptionist said to him “Look at it this way, Maybe you’ll die first!”
    I am sure I will hear more so until the next stupid thing.
    Brenda

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